Spokane Superintendent Della Bell-Freeman dreamed of becoming a teacher from an early age.
“I was the oldest of three, so my brother and sister—they were playing school quite regularly,” Dr. Bell-Freeman tells the Christian County Headliner News, chuckling. She’s sitting in her new office at the Spokane School District Central Office, having taken her position July 1. “School was always just a positive experience for me, and now I see it as a way to make a difference.”
Across from her is Spokane Secondary Assistant Principal Becky Justis, who has a similar story. She grew up with three brothers and was an athlete all her life.
“It was just a natural thing for me. I knew in high school that I wanted to teach and coach,” Justis, who begins Aug. 1, says. “I originally was going to be a business teacher, but I took a softball technique class in college and the instructor was like, ‘Only P.E. majors can be in this class.’”
It led to an epiphany.
“I was like, ‘Why would I want to be in a classroom when I could be in a gym?’ So, I switched and never looked back,” Justis says.
Bell-Freeman and Justis have since moved through years of experience as both educators and administrators at several school districts. Now, they’re ready to bring a new energy to Spokane as they fill their predecessor’s large shoes. They hope to start by building relationships and embracing the district’s strengths.
Bell-Freeman began her career at the Moberly School District, where she worked as an elementary teacher for 15 years and as a building principal for another six. It was during that time Bell-Freeman began work on her doctorate degree. Things also changed within her personal life: her husband died, and sometime later, she remarried the Mexico School District’s then-superintendent.
“That meant a move, and so it was a good time to look at what else was available as far as a job,” Bell-Freeman says. She soon took a job as a Montgomery County School District principal. “Then, after a year, I became assistant superintendent.”
Her husband has since retired, however, and currently works for the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education at the regional professional development center in Springfield. When the opportunity to work as a superintendent in southwest Missouri presented itself, Bell-Freeman took advantage of it.
Justis, on the other hand, taught P.E. at Ozark High School for 16 years. She was also the head volleyball coach.
“I resigned so I could watch my daughters play college volleyball,” she says. Afterward, she wanted to get back into doing what she loved. She took a job in the Galena School District and went back to coaching.
“I was there for two years and got to do a lot of great things,” Justis says. “Then, this job opened, and I applied for it, and here I am.”
Every job comes with a unique set of challenges, but Bell-Freeman is ready. She mentions recent litigation with the district, regarding a case in which two former students were indicted by a Christian County grand jury. They ultimately had their charges dropped. Two former school administrators, former superintendent Daryl Bernskoetter and Spokane High School Principal Chris Kohl, were indicted, but their charges were dropped by prosecutors and the two educators were ultimately cleared.
While Bell-Freeman was not part of that litigation, she says outgoing superintendent Terry Jamieson made sure she was aware of it.
There’s also always the challenge of keeping in line with the district’s budget.
“I think we’re in a good place, so it’s just getting up to speed with where we are in the budget and making sure that as I make decisions, I’m carefully thinking through how it will impact this budget and future budgets,” Bell-Freeman said. Making connections with the people she will work with is also important to her. “Something I think is always a challenge is building relationships with new people. … I had (staff) fill out these get-to-know-you sheets, so I can find out how to best work with people.”
Justis is unsure of the challenges she’ll face herself. In fact, she feels she has an advantage, as she will be Spokane Secondary Principal Kent Doyle’s right-hand woman. She previously worked with Doyle at Ozark School District for 15 years.
“I know him very, very well,” Justis says.
One thing Bell-Freeman and Justis have in common is that they both worked at districts with four-day weeks, just like Spokane.
“Last year was my first year to do the four-day week, and I’m just telling you, it is awesome,” Justis says.
Bell-Freeman says one of the Tuesday-Friday schedule’s greatest benefits is the time it allows on Mondays for professional development.
“You have a whole day that you can work on developing your people. It’s just so much more focused than some of the things I’ve seen during my career, where we do an early-dismissal and teachers are mentally checked out,” she says. “Everything becomes very chopped up, and when you have those blocks of time, you can really dig in to whatever the initiative, whether it be something with student behavior or academics, and then you can come back and revisit it the next month.”
The four-day week, of course, forces teachers to be more intentional in their lesson plans, though it’s also a great retention tool, Justis says, especially against the larger districts that appeal to many teachers.
“You’ve got those great teachers and they’re not going to look elsewhere, because this helps keep them there,” she says.
Bell-Freeman adds student improvement and decreased absenteeism may also be a result of shorter school weeks.
“We constantly tracked all sorts of data, but I will tell you, they started in Montgomery County in 2011 doing the four-day week, and what we saw is that student achievement on those state assessments increased.”
Making it better
Bell-Freeman has already gotten to know several other Spokane community leaders.
“So far, the interactions with the mayor and our police chief—those have been positive,” she says. “I think everybody has this shared vision. We want our school to be the best it can be for our kids.”
Justis plans to do her best by observing the inner-workings of the district first.
“I’m not one to just jump in and make changes. Like all of us, it can be offensive,” she says. “As I get more acclimated to the school district, we can start collaborating and talking, and try to grow as we see the need.”
Bell-Freeman nods her head in agreement. Her aim—simple, though significant—is to make the district better than she found it.
“Anytime I’m part of anything, my personal goal is to leave something better than I found it, whether that’s 22 years later, 10 years later or five years later,” Bell-Freeman says. “I recognize there are lots of strengths that exist within the district and I just want to build on those.”